November 6, 2003
Mojitos and Matzah Balls in Havana
Care for an authentic Cuban mojito at the L'chaim bar? How about Israeli salad, matzah ball soup and cheese blintzes?
They're all now on the menu at the Hotel Raquel, Cuba's first boutique hotel catering specifically to adventurous Jewish tourists.
Richly illustrated passages from the Bible cover the walls of the small but elegant property, located in what was once a thriving Jewish neighborhood of Old Havana.
The 25-room hotel originally was built as a bank in 1908, a time when thousands of impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria were immigrating to Cuba.
After the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, nearly all of the Jews fled to the United States and elsewhere. Today, no more than 1,300 Jews live in Cuba, most in Havana.
For many years, the structure housing the Raquel was used as a warehouse and fabric depot. Now, its eclectic architecture and romantic Art Nouveau interiors -- all refurbished -- have made the Raquel a jewel in the crown of Habaguanex S.A., the state entity charged with fixing up Old Havana's hotels and restaurants.
The property is located six blocks from Congregacion Adat Israel, Cuba's oldest synagogue, and boasts the largest stained-glass window on the island.
General manager Jose Manuel Quesada said that since the Raquel's inauguration in June, it has become popular with Spanish tourists as well as Americans circumventing the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.
He expects the occupancy rate to reach 80 to 85 percent this winter, thanks to an influx of visitors from France, Germany and Great Britain.
In addition to American Jews, the Raquel clearly hopes to attract tourists from Israel. Though Castro broke off relations with the Jewish State in 1973, tour operators in Tel Aviv estimate that at least 10,000 Israelis have visited Cuba.
Near the Raquel is a kosher butcher shop and a bakery. Some Jewish families still live in the vicinity, and according to Leal, at least seven hotel employees are Jewish.
Eusebio Leal Spengler, director of Habaguanex and Havana's official historian, said the revival of Jewish culture at the Hotel Raquel is a long and involved process.
"We have built a place of harmony in a Havana neighborhood that respects the best traditions of the Jewish people, members of a community that live in Cuba together with citizens of other beliefs," he said.
In high season, rooms at the Raquel start at $180 for a double, going up to $282 a night for one of the hotel's two junior suites. These prices include a welcome cocktail, breakfast, access to a safe, free entrance to all museums and 10 percent off at all Habaguanex-managed restaurants.
The Jewish touch seems to be everywhere in the building, with rooms on the second floor named after biblical matriarchs like Sarah, Hannah, Leah, Ruth and Tziporah. First-floor rooms have names like David and Solomon.
It's the only hotel in Cuba whose phone system plays the theme song from "Schindler's List'' when callers must be placed on hold.
Four ornate chandeliers patterned after Stars of David hang in the lobby, while contemporary paintings by Cuban Jewish artist Jose Farinis hang on the hotel's walls.
The lobby bar, meanwhile, is named L'chaim. It's right next to the Bezalel boutique and gift shop, which sells Judaica, and the Garden of Eden restaurant, where guests can choose a variety of kosher-style items ranging from potato latkes to red beet borscht and vegetable knishes.
For really hungry tourists, the Garden of Eden offers lamb shishlik, sweet-and-sour beef tongue, Hungarian goulash and gefilte fish.
Quesada says the hotel never cooks vegetables together with meat, but Pavel Tenenbaum, a Cuban Jew who used to work at the hotel, says the Raquel does not follow the rules of kashrut.
For more information on Hotel Raquel, visit www.cuba.tc/raquel.html .